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According to the United Nations, in the early to mid-2010s, 1.9 billion people of the global population lived in severely water-scarce areas. But this number will increase to 2.7- 3.2 billion people by 2050. The Water and Related Statistics (2021) published by the Central Water Commission (CWC) of India, mentions that one out of three people will live in a water-stressed area by 2025. But unfortunately, the small water bodies (tanks and others) which have been supporting the agriculture and domestic requirement of water for many years in India are fast vanishing now. So, there is an urgent need to augment the water supply wherever possible to avert the looming water crisis.

What are the Benefits Derived from Small Water Bodies?

Easy Access to Water: SWBs can provide easy access to water for domestic needs, animal husbandry, drinking water and agriculture particularly in rural areas. This can help improve water security and reduce the burden of water collection for households. SWBs are located in every village, reducing the distance women have to walk to fetch water for their drinking needs.

Low Maintenance Cost: Compared to large dams and reservoirs, SWBs are relatively low-cost to construct and maintain. This makes them an attractive option for small-scale water storage and management.

Helpful for Farmers: SWBs can be used for irrigation and aquaculture, providing a reliable source of water for farming activities. This can help increase crop yields and support livelihoods for farmers. Effective distribution of water without conflicts helps reduce poverty among small and marginal farmers.

Helps in Groundwater Recharge: SWBs can also help recharge groundwater resources, particularly in areas where groundwater depletion is a concern. By capturing and storing rainwater, SWBs can help replenish groundwater aquifers and improve overall water availability.

Biodiversity: Small water bodies support a diverse range of plant and animal species, including many rare and endangered species. They provide important habitat and breeding grounds for aquatic and semi-aquatic organisms, such as fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.

Water Quality: Small water bodies can help to improve water quality by acting as natural filters, removing pollutants and sediment from runoff water before it enters larger bodies of water. They can also help to recharge groundwater and maintain water levels during droughts.

Flood Control: Small water bodies can help to reduce the risk of flooding by capturing and storing excess water during heavy rain events, and slowly releasing it over time.

What are the Issues Facing the Small Water Bodies today

  • Continuous Encroachment on Catchment Areas: Small water bodies such as lakes, ponds, and streams are under constant threat due to encroachment on their catchment areas. As urbanization expands, people are building houses, commercial buildings, and other infrastructure in and around the catchment areas of these water bodies. This can lead to the destruction of natural vegetation, soil erosion, and pollution of the water body itself. The urban agglomeration witnessed from the 1990s has severely impacted SWBs, turning many of them into dumping grounds. The Standing Committee on Water Resources (2012-13) underlined in its 16th report that most of the water bodies in the country were encroached upon by State agencies themselves. According to the Standing Committee on Water Resources (2012-13), about one million hectares of irrigation potential was lost due to encroachment and other reasons.
  • Lack of Annual Maintenance: Small water bodies require regular maintenance to keep them healthy and functional. However, due to limited resources, these bodies are often neglected and left to deteriorate. The lack of maintenance can result in a build-up of sediment, debris, and pollutants, leading to poor water quality and even the complete drying up of the water body.
  • Pollution: Small water bodies are often exposed to pollution from various sources, such as agricultural runoff, sewage, industrial waste, and urban development. Pollution can lead to a range of ecological problems, including eutrophication, algal blooms, and fish kills.
  • Habitat Loss: Small water bodies are often threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation due to land use changes, such as urbanization, deforestation, and agricultural intensification. This can lead to declines in biodiversity and ecological functioning.
  • Invasive Species: Small water bodies can be vulnerable to invasion by non-native species, which can outcompete native species and disrupt ecological processes. Invasive species can also lead to declines in water quality and habitat quality.
  • Climate Change: Small water bodies are also affected by climate change, which can lead to changes in water availability, temperature, and quality. Climate change can also exacerbate the impacts of other stressors, such as pollution and habitat loss.
  • Overuse and Exploitation: Small water bodies can be overused and exploited for a variety of purposes, such as irrigation, drinking water, recreation, and fisheries. Overuse can lead to depletion of water resources, degradation of water quality, and declines in biodiversity.

What Should be the Way Forward?

  • Strong Legislation is Needed: Considering the ever-increasing encroachments, strong legislation should urgently be enacted to make encroachment on water bodies a cognisable offence. In 2014, the Madras High Court ruled that no approval should be granted for building plans or layouts on lands situated along SWBs (Streams, Water Bodies, and Wetlands).
  • Creating a Separate Ministry for Small Water Bodies: Understanding the dying state of SWBs, a separate Ministry for Small Water Bodies should be created with adequate funding to conduct periodic repair and rehabilitation works. Without the participation of farmers who are the main beneficiaries of SWBs, it is difficult to improve the performance of these age-old oases.
  • Setting up a Tank Users Organisation: Farmers must voluntarily come forward to set up a tank users’ organisation and undertake the repairing of SWBs, as followed earlier under the age-old Kudimaramathu system. Since corporates are increasingly using water for various purposes, they should be asked to repair and renovate SWBs under the ambit of Corporate Social Responsibility.
  • Avoid Contamination: Small water bodies are vulnerable to pollution from runoff from agricultural fields, industrial activities, and residential areas. To protect them, it is important to avoid the contamination of water bodies by preventing the discharge of harmful chemicals and wastes into them.
  • Preserving the Surrounding Land: The health of small water bodies is closely linked to the health of the surrounding land. Protecting the surrounding land from development, deforestation, and other activities that lead to soil erosion can help prevent sedimentation and nutrient pollution in the water.
  • Control Invasive Species: Invasive species such as non-native plants and animals can disrupt the ecological balance of small water bodies. Control measures should be implemented to prevent their introduction and spread.